Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Intellectual Commodity, Part I

People have no problem understanding the importance of commodities. These marketable items form the backbone and driving force of the global economy. They also play a crucial role in our everyday lives. Imagine waking up to find our planet's supply of oil suddenly expired. How might your life be affected by this? How about the world at large? This is a matter of pure speculation, of course, but our reliance on oil is no secret. What would happen if the pumps went dry?

Hello, dark age, my old friend.

It's safe to say that our lives depend on the availability and affordability of many commodities. What many fail to realize is that information is also a commodity. Like oil, copper, rice, wheat, iron, gold, silver, etc. information can be bought, sold, and traded. Furthermore, the value of material commodities is intrinsically tied to knowledge. The two enjoy a symbiotic relationship, depending on each other in many ways. But more on that later.

Early humans knew the value of information and went to great lengths to preserve it. They invented written-languages and methods to preserve such writings. From baked-clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to paper, it's no surprise that with each improvement comes similar progress in other disciplines. Our ability to store, access, and share information is directly correlated to our overall prosperity.

Let us examine the tale of Prometheus for an interesting angle on the value of ideas. According to the legend, the greek god Prometheus, creator and biggest supporter of humans, steals the secret of fire from his fellow Olympians and delivers it to our kind, signalling the dawn of civilization. For his troubles, Prometheus is sentenced to an eternity of torture. Tied to a stone, he is doomed to have his liver eaten by an eagle (Zeus' pet) every day, only to have the pesky organ regrow every night.
I'd be sad too if my liver was getting eaten by an eagle :(

Surely this isn't how it really happened. The secret of fire was probably stumbled upon by some stone-age hunter. Isn't it telling though that later generations attributed the discovery to a god? This piece of information was so valuable, so pivotal to our survival and expansion, that our ancestors could not fathom it originating within humanity.

Perhaps the legend of Prometheus was inspired by some older oral tradition. Perhaps the tribespeople who bore witness to this momentous event deified the person responsible. Certainly the first artisans, shamans, and mid-wives enjoyed similar privilege and status among their people. Likewise for the first shepherds, shipwrights, and farmers. It is no accident that ancient humans assigned gods to oversee every trade. The old pantheons are packed with gods that represent blacksmiths, farmers, warriors, shepherds, prostitutes, and so on. Isn't it odd that, though these roles are all human inventions, later generations attributed their origins to gods?

New inventions to explain old inventions. Marvel at the human mind, ye mortals!

Let us continue with the example of fire. Before they mastered the creation of fire, our ancestors depended on chance for finding it in the wild. Once obtained, tribes worked to preserve the sacred flames. If the embers went out, these tribes were plunged into darkness and their lives became much more difficult. To them, fire could be a matter of life and death.

Imagine now the first few people who, through blind luck or careful observation, discovered ways to make fire without the aid of lightning. It's no wonder the lucky person who first succeeded at making fire was deified! Initially the process of starting a fire would have been imperfect at best. The rate of success would have been very low but that didn't matter. All it took was a single successful attempt to get the ball rolling.

Over the centuries the process for making fire was refined. New methods or techniques were discovered. Some improved success rates, others did not. If you read my previous post, you know what happens next: changes that improve the process are kept and reenforced; changes that hurt the process are discarded and go extinct. When you go camping, you don't make sacrifices to the fire-god or perform ritualistic dances before making a fire.

That's meme theory hard at work.

Prehistoric humans were just that: pre-historic. They had no means of looking back in time, no way to trace their own progress across the ages. It was impossible for our ancestors to fathom the millennia-long process of refinement described above. The art of making fire had come to them complete, a finely-tuned science far too miraculous to have been born of human thought. The story of that first fire-starter, like the process of making fire itself, would have been refined with each generation as well. Over time, the inventor of human-made fire became something more than human.

And that's how gods are made, kids.

Biological evolution, by the way, works in much the same way. Tiny mutations appear over the span of millions of years, some surviving and multiplying, others dying out; the survivors piggy-back on top one another, creating increasingly more complex organisms. The end result, finely-tuned over a sprawling chasm of time, barely resembles the starting product. Ironically, this phenomenon drives many people to an eerily familiar conclusion. Glimpsing the end-product, they cannot fathom the long process of refinement that led to it and attribute our existence--and the existence of the entire universe--to divine design*.

Despite all the progress we've made as a species, we're not terribly far from where we started.

But I digress. 

The value of information as an intellectual commodity cannot be overstated. Without knowledge of combustion, the value of crude oil would be greatly reduced. Without knowledge of metallurgy, the value of copper, iron, silver, and gold might be nonexistent. Seeds are worthless in the hands of those who don't know how to sow them and nurture them to adulthood. This is the symbiotic relationship I alluded to earlier. Material commodities depend on intellectual commodities--knowledge, information, ideas--for their value. Without knowledge, even gold is worthless.

If ideas are commodities then we're bound to meet people who stand to gain or lose from their acceptance or rejection. Next week we'll discuss the importance of validating information, standards of proof, and how to make educated decisions in the face of conflicting testimonies.

/rant over.

*Interestingly, this thought-process creates an unsolvable problem. If we argue that something complex must have a creator, we agree that the creator must be more complex than the thing created. By that logic, God must be more complex than all he created. Following this premise, we must agree that God, being more complex than the universe itself, could not have come to being by accident or on His own. Therefore, God must have a creator, and that creator, being more complex than God, must also have a creator. SO ON AND SO FORTH AND SUCH. /rant over again.

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